What does your family do on the eve of a holiday? In my family, Christmas Eve is spent at church, reflecting on the meaning of Christmas. Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is now a time for fall festivals, but in past years, we took our children trick-or-treating at the homes of friends and relatives. New Year’s Eve, we usually go bowling with a large group of friends, and we watch a bowl game at the bowling alley. (For the uninitiated, bowl games are football games pitting the best college teams from across the country against other teams which are in different leagues.)
Most of the time, we are planning for the actual holiday or talking about the meaning of the day. Do you know the origin of April Fools’ (Fools, Fool’s – all depending on the source) Day? I know you’re dying to find out, so I slaved for hours researching the subject for you. (Actually I Googled it.)
Precursors of April Fools’ Day include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, celebrated by playing pranks in Spanish-speaking countries, on December 28.
An April Fools’ Day prank with a purported new design of an (alleged) city bus, from an April 1926 issue of the company newspaper “Echo Continental”, published by the Continental Rubber Works Hannover AG company
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392), the “Nun’s Priest Tale” is set thirty-two days after April, or on May 2. Readers apparently misunderstood this line to mean March 32, or April 1. In the tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox. Was that an April Fools’ joke?
Literary allusions to April Fool’s Day abound. In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1.In 1686, in the first British reference to the day, John Aubrey referred to it as “Fooles holy day.” On 1 April 1698, a trickster convinced several people into going to washing of the lions at The Tower of London. There are many, many (yawn), many other examples.
On 1 April 1957, the respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It accompanied this announcement with footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC diplomatically replied, “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
Different countries celebrate the day in various ways. April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day in Scotland. It’s a sort of chain letter in which the sender asks the receiver for help in hunting gawk (foolish person). The letter is sent along until someone is dumb enough to fall for it. I like it – humiliating with nothing to clean up afterward. That’s my kind of practical joke. In Iran, it’s the thirteenth day of the Persian new year, celebrated as far back as 536 B.C. What does that have to do with April Fools’ Day? I have no clue, but Iran gets the prize for the oldest tradition linked to the holiday.
In Italy, France, Belgium, and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, the April 1 tradition is often known as “April fish” (poisson d’avril in French or pesce d’aprile in Italian). Jokesters try to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. I like that.
I’ll think I’ll spend this evening thinking about fools I’ve known and loved, and cutting out fish. Watch your back tomorrow.